Rick Reilly retired from writing columns. Some viewed this as a turning point. Jay Mariotti, inveterately black and white, proclaimed this “the death of sportswriting.” The disgraced columnist went wild with the flame thrower. But we can distill his true point to the following couple sentences.
Once, the business was flowing with big money, and the best sportswriters made millions. Now, irresponsible entrepreneurs hire writers on the cheap to write lies and drive traffic.
Mariotti does not lament the death of sports writing. It’s the death of a lucrative model of sports column writing. That death has already occurred. Brace yourselves, it has not been a bad thing for the industry.
Look at the “Writer’s Bracket” from our media tournament. Bill Simmons operates a website, appears on TV and plays a prominent role in TV production. Jason Whitlock will be operating his own website (and play some greater role on TV, we’d expect). Dan Le Batard has a TV show and a national radio show. Peter King runs his own website and appears on TV.
This isn’t new. Heck. Rick Reilly was dabbling in movie scripts before he left SI. Besides the “ridonkulous” money, a primary reason he joined ESPN was to expand his TV presence.
TV has always offered more money. But this also reflects a broader shift with the decline of print advertisement. Users consume content in different ways. The “columnist” of 15 years ago is now a multimedia brand, engaging people through print, TV, videos, radio and podcasts.
The Chinese wall between the business and content has crumbled. Writers must be conscious of the business side and actively promote it. Peter King, in the social media era, is sitting in on ad meetings, thinking of new ways to integrate sponsors with content and, if need be, tweeting a picture of himself working hard on his new Surface tablet.
Reader engagement, for better or worse, is quantifiable. Outlets know what is working and how to distribute resources accordingly. What’s drawing readers to news sites is not the opinionated jerk on the billboard, it is news.
Pretend you are starting a sports section in 2014. You would hire strong beat writers who both break news and offer insight. You would hire an army of young, relatively cheap and social media savvy people willing to grind and to “do windows.”
What you would not do is pay an eminent columnist mid-six figures for three 800-word pieces per week that may or may not drive traffic. Especially a columnist who would, for instance, go ballistic when a kid making less than $40,000 per year working nights doesn’t hang around three hours past his shift ends to get a column from Beijing on the site at 2:00AM.
It’s not journalism that has been devalued by the Internet. Websites, of any form, still distinguish themselves by breaking news and providing insightful, quality analysis. It’s writing opinion that has been devalued. The Internet is pure Democracy. Anyone, even those who weren’t “trained” for it, can start a blog or a Twitter feed and write.
There are drawbacks to this. There are also benefits. Competition and scrutiny have led to better work. If you are lazy at a major site in 2014, the Internet will find you, within minutes. There is a broader range of perspective. People no longer need to seek content. They need to filter it. There is more mobility for young, talented people to rise. Though sportswriting still lags behind other genres, media will become less white and less male.
There is much to worry about with where the industry is heading. There is also much to be encouraged by. The SEO/Content Farm revolution is here to stay. We write this firmly cognizant “13 reasons Journalism is Dead” would do more traffic. Monitoring Twitter and getting that viral video up before another site does remains vital. However, this has also sparked a backlash. Sites are pushing harder to define themselves with better content.
ESPN has “embraced debate.” But it has also produced 30 for 30 and invested in Grantland, Nate Silver’s 538, and the upcoming Whitlock site, providing ample resources for “smarter” content without a direct route to immediate profit. Many major sites are striving for a balance between the thoughtful and the inane but profitable. One could quibble with some of the results thus far – quality should mean more than “this took a lot of effort and my friends will retweet it” – but the ambition is admirable.
Sportswriting is not dead. It is evolving, as it has for the past century. Evolution can be painful for those who can’t adapt.
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